Mon. July 30
Footprintz in the Sands of Time
Very few people these days are trying to raise their children as good New England Transcendentalists. And so one might expect the market for a Transcendentalist children’s novel to be vanishingly small. Yet fantasist (and mystery novelist) Jane Langton managed to create novels which are didactic, yet light and charming.
The Diamond in the Window, my favorite of Langton’s tales, begins when a brother and sister learn that their Concord, Massachusetts home will be seized for nonpayment of back taxes unless they can raise thousands of dollars. Glimpsing a stained-glass window high up in the attic, a window they’ve never noticed before, the children go exploring and find a room with a few abandoned toys and two small beds. Their long-suffering Aunt Lily explains that this was once the room of her siblings Ned and Nora, for whom Edward and Eleanor had been named: two children who vanished one day, along with Aunt Lily’s fiance, the mysterious Prince Krishna, who left behind a poem, scratched into the stained-glass window, promising a treasure hoard for the one who can decipher the clues.
Our heroes begin to sleep in the attic beds every night, and go adventuring in dreams. Each dream holds the key to a stanza of the poem.
The “treasures” the children discover are lightly-handled lessons in gratitude, admiration for learning and self-improvement, and self-sacrifice. The dreams are never stodgy. Eleanor discovers that the doll “fit for any princess” is not an expensive china-and-lace confection, but a battered rag doll made precious by the later accomplishments of its owner, Louisa May Alcott, and the tender care of her sister Beth. This gentle fable is followed by a truly memorable dream in which the children enter a mirror maze. They’re confronted with two alternate versions of themselves, their future selves, and asked to pick between the two images—which are only slightly different. Their early choices, which turn on subtleties like whether future-Eleanor used powder to cover her freckles, trap them in more selfish and troubling future selves, and they must struggle in darkness to find their way back and make different, better choices.
The book reflects the limitations of its time period—and, I would argue, its worldview. The gender roles are especially rigid: Why can Eleanor choose a future self who is a mother, but Edward is never asked to choose fatherhood? When the children witness great men of history striding across a beach, leaving their heavy “footprintz in the sands of time” (the typo is from a sampler sewn by their Uncle Freddy), these geniuses come from every race and nation but only one sex. And the form of Transcendentalism promoted by this book can sway from respect for learning to idolatry. The Diamond in the Window sometimes makes it seem like those without the mental abilities or educations of the two Concord children are simply irrelevant; only the people who can go to Harvard really count. Uncle Freddy’s storyline plays out this tendency in a fascinating way: The disappearances of his little sister and brother, Nora and Ned, shocked him so much that he lost much of his reasoning power. He’s portrayed through most of the book as a gentle, pathetic figure, who “had a face that seemed to have come apart into a sort of miscellaneous collection of features.” He’s treated tenderly by Aunt Lily and the children. But in the novel’s happy ending, his reasoning power and immense intellect are restored, and with Prince Krishna’s rediscovered treasure he begins to build a College of Transcendental Knowledge—which is thrilling for the children and satisfying for the reader, but which leaves the lasting impression that there really is no room in this worldview for someone who isn’t a professor at heart.
However, these more troubling elements aren’t the treasures I found in The Diamond in the Window. Its dreams of giant nautilus shells and wedding dresses made of bloodstained snow captured my imagination and furnished me with lessons about, especially, the importance of seemingly-small moral choices. Stephen Prothero has argued that world religions can be categorized and understood based on what they identify as the central problem of human life, and what solution they propose to this problem. (Thus Judaism, for example, identifies exile as the problem and return as the solution.) In the Transcendentalism of The Diamond in the Window the great problems of human life are ingratitude, self-centeredness and concern for one’s own romantic image rather than the needs of others, and—especially—lack of awareness of life’s fragility and finitude. The book is structured around the four seasons, to give an even more vivid sense of time passing, choices being made almost without our noticing: a series of doors closing behind us one by one as we move forward into our own possible futures. This is not a worldview which comes naturally to most children. The sense that our present actions limit our futures is hard for little kids to grasp. The Diamond in the Window presents that challenging truth in the gentlest way possible.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written forCommonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.